Smartphones affect nearly every facet of our day-to-day lives, and researchers from the University of Washington say there are consistent trends that govern why we pick up and put down our devices.
“For a couple of years I’ve been looking at people’s experiences with smartphones and listening to them talk about their frustration with the way they engage with their phones,” said researcher Alexis Hiniker. “But on the flip side, when we ask people what they find meaningful about their phone use, nobody says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Everyone can point to experiences with their phones that have personal and persistent meaning.”
According to Hiniker, her project hinged on one important question: “How do we support that value without bringing along all the baggage?”
Understanding smartphone use
The researchers began by interviewing participants from three different age groups -- high school students, college students, and adults -- to determine what prompted them to either pick up or put down their smartphones.
The researchers found that the reasons for beginning or ending smartphone use was the same across all age groups. Participants were likely to use their phones when: in a socially awkward situation, in an unoccupied moment, they were waiting for a message, or when beginning a boring or repetitive task.
Similarly, the recognition of having spent too much time on the phone, coming across content they’d seen already, or being occupied by other things was what pushed participants to put their phones down.
“This doesn’t mean that teens use their phones the same way adults do,” said Hiniker. “But I think this compulsive itch to turn back to your phone plays out the same way across all age groups.”
Tailoring smartphone use
While many studies about smartphone use look for ways to curb the technology addiction, the researchers of this study were curious to gauge participants’ feelings towards their smartphone use.
They started this practice by asking the participants to come up with ways to moderate their smartphone use. While many participants offered solutions that would lock users out, effectively barring them from using their devices, many didn’t feel that using their phones was something to be ashamed of, or that it should be prevented.
“If the phone weren’t valuable at all, then sure, the lockout mechanism would work great,” Hiniker said. “We could just stop having phones, and the problem would be solved. But that’s not really the case.”
Because a number of participants felt they were using their phones to enhance their connection to the world, Hiniker encourages future software updates to allow consumers to interact with their technology in the best way they see fit.
“People have a pretty good sense of what matters to them,” she said. “They can try to tailor what’s on their phone to support the things that they find meaningful.”
Smartphone use has been targeted in recent years, especially when a study revealed that the devices were being charged with the increase in traffic deaths and injuries.
Despite that, consumers chose smartphones as their preferred device, and researchers continue to explore how using them is affecting our day-to-day lives. A recent study found that social connection is at the heart of why consumers are so attached to their smartphones.
"There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic," says Professor Samuel Veissière. "We're trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive -- and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this."